Reflections on Turning 80!

Since reaching my 80th birthday in November, I have been keenly aware that I am running out of time. According to the Social Security actuaries, my life expectancy is now in single digits, roughly eight more years. That’s a sobering realization.

For most of my life, my orientation has been toward the future, anticipating and preparing for new beginnings. Beginning school, entering marriage, starting a family, graduating from school, launching a vocation, moving to a new congregation and community, retiring from one position and beginning another one, having grandchildren and even a great grandchild. The future has seemed limitless.

Now, I am living with more endings than beginnings. I have more memories than dreams, more recollections than anticipations. I’m losing more long-time friends and family members faster than gaining new ones.

Diminishment is my reality. Diminished energy, diminished engagements, diminished responsibilities, diminished influence, diminished number of living siblings, diminished circle of friends, diminished mobility.

Although my health is currently strong and my cognitive capacities are intact, frailty is likely just around the corner. I dread that phase for me and my family. I prefer to skip feebleness, but physical and mental frailty is the norm in our later years.

This sounds so depressing! Admittedly, I am grieving a multitude of losses and learning to live with accumulating endings and fewer beginnings.

Laments have become integral to my prayer life. Psalm 71 surfaces regularly: “Do not cast me off in the time of my old age; do not forsake me when my strength is spent.”

Laments, however, clear the way for possible new beginnings. They are means of letting go, probing deeper, and re-ordering priorities. Lament makes possible a re-orientation toward the present and future.

During a seminar on pastoral care and dementia, a friend asked, “Ken, you cared for Linda during the years of her frailty and death. What did you learn in that process that is helpful as you face your own frail years?”

My immediate response was that I know I will be supported in my infirmity by people who love me. As Linda was surrounded by love and support as her capacities diminished, I will be upheld by that same love. I may not be able to reciprocate, but I know from experience that love expands as we live in solidarity with the vulnerable and powerless. After all, love endures because love is participation in the very life of God.

As I have continued to ponder my friend’s question, other lessons have emerged.

Loving Linda in her frailty has taught me to value the present moment and fill it with as much joy and love as possible. In reality, the present moment is all any of us have for certain. As with most things, time increases in value as it decreases in quantity. In a sense, each moment is a new opportunity, even a new beginning!

Linda also helped me to learn that it’s the simple, even unnoticed actions that have the most meaning. A gesture of recognition, fleeting smile, twinkle in the eyes, gentle squeeze of the hand, simple act of kindness toward those nearby have immeasurable effects. Though the circle of relationships may grow smaller, the depth of the love can grow deeper. As Mother Teresa affirmed: “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”

Finally, I am learning that being really is more important than doing! That is a hard reality to accept in a society that values productivity above almost all else. Human worth often is measured by capacities to produce, to DO! I’m living proof that the ability to DO inevitably diminishes with the advancement of age. But BEING a beloved child of God has no expiration date.

Although death has taken Linda’s presence from me, she remains part of my BEING, reminding me that when death comes to me, I will still be part of those with whom I have shared love.

My Most Memorable Christmas Eve

It was a Sunday afternoon before Christmas in the early 1970s. I was resting comfortably in the parsonage in Abingdon, Virginia, when the telephone rang. It was the owner of the local funeral home, a member of the church I was serving.

“I’m sorry to disturb you, Kenneth, but I need some help. A man is here whose wife died and they have no church affiliation. He is from this area but has been away for several years. Would you be willing to come down and help him plan a funeral service?”

I readily agreed and made my way to the funeral home. I wasn’t prepared for what followed. There awaited a young father and two children, Patricia, age 5, and two-year-old Eddie. They were the same ages as our daughters, Sheri and Sandra.

The father was grief-stricken. His wife, whom he had married in Korea during the war, had died from cancer. He needed help in telling the children that their mother had died. How do you help young children understand that their mother is gone? Here it is a few days before Christmas and Patricia and Eddie have lost the one who gave them birth and cared for them. I don’t remember what I said. I just remember hugging them!

We had the funeral a couple of days later. Only a dozen or so people were present. After the service, I asked the father what they were would be doing Christmas Eve. He had no plans but to be with his relative. I asked if he would like Patricia and Eddie to spend Christmas Eve with us. Eddie decided he wanted to stay with his Dad, but Patricia was eager to be with Sheri and Sandra.

Linda rushed out and bought more presents to place under the tree as we anticipated having a special guest for Christmas, a little five-year-old who had just lost her mother.

The Christmas Eve celebration began with a service at the church. It was a simple portrayal of the Nativity as described in Luke and Matthew. I narrated the story from the pulpit while the shepherds, magi, Mary and Joseph, and angels made their way to the altar.

Linda sat on the front row with Sheri, Sandra, and Patricia. I heard Sheri whispering to Patricia throughout the drama. I suddenly realized what was happening. She and Sandra were interpreting the drama to Patricia. It dawned on me that she was experiencing the Christmas story for the first time, and she was hearing it from two little girls.

Following the service, we gathered at the parsonage for dinner. About the time dessert was served, Patricia got up from the table and ran to a bedroom crying. After a short time, I followed her into the dark room.

I cradled her in my arms as she sobbed. “You miss your Momma, don’t you? I’m so sorry. It’s okay to cry.”

Suddenly, the door opened and into the darkness came Sheri and Sandra. Sheri was carrying one of her favorite possessions, a jeweled box given to her by her grandmother. She reached it toward Patricia and said, “This is for you.”

Patricia’s tears stopped as she reached for her gift. She slowly returned to her dessert, holding onto her special present.

That Christmas, more than forty-five years ago, remains my most memorable and transformative Christmas. Amid the darkness of grief and loss, three little girls BECAME the Christmas story.

May we, too, become the Christmas Story amid the darkness of our grieving and suffering world.

Hope Beyond the Election

Anxiety reigns as the election draws near! Both sides of the political divide imagine the results in apocalyptic terms. Indeed, much is at stake! Nothing less than the future of our democracy and stability of society’s institutions hang in the balance. The Right and the Left and the Middle have contrasting interpretations of “democracy” and “stability”; and visions of the nation’s desired future are colliding in the choices citizens are making in the election.

Admittedly, I am more anxious about the future of my homeland than I have been in my almost eighty years. I fear the consequences of continued polarization, ideological warfare, political dysfunction, corruption, dishonesty by governmental and institutional leaders, the harshness and crudeness of our discourse, and the blatant racism and tribalism expressed at the highest levels of our government.

Then, there is the Covid-19 pandemic that is killing more and more of our citizens while many deny its deadliness. I yearn for empathetic, compassionate leadership that pays attention to God-given science and puts the welfare of ALL above personal aggrandizement and political expediency.

Now is the time to get in touch with the foundation that will remain beyond the election results. This isn’t the first time people of faith have endured the crumbling of national, institutional, and cultural foundations. Neither will it be the last time catastrophic threats will appear.

Out of the agonizing laments of a collapsing nation and widespread despair came this resounding declaration following the collapse of Judah and the destruction of the economic and social life among the citizenry at the hands of Babylon:

The steadfast love of the LORD
     never ceases, 
his mercies never come to an
     end; 
they are new every morning;   
  great is your faithfulness. 
The LORD is my portion, says
     my soul,
  therefore I will hope in him.                    
                   Lamentations 3:22-24

That is the bedrock foundation that will not be shaken by the election. Hesed, the Hebrew word translated as “steadfast love,” declares God’s unrelenting, loyal, unshakable compassion, mercy, and justice. It is at the heart of God’s character, the essence of the Divine Being.

Love, Compassion, Mercy, and Justice will remain deeply embedded in the nature of reality, whatever happens in the election. They are divine components of creation itself. And, nations and institutions rise and fall in accordance with how they embody “the steadfast love of the Lord” and the mercy that never ceases.

Whatever happens in the election, God will be faithful in “defending the orphans, widows, and sojourners (immigrants); announcing good news to the poor and release to the captives; entering solidarity with the poor, the vulnerable, the dying; breaking down the dividing walls of hostility and welcoming ALL into a beloved community; and bringing to completion the reign of justice, compassion, hospitality, and joy.

I remain anxious about the outcome of the election. But I will not give up! Indeed, there will continue to be opportunities to expand the circle of love, practice compassion in places of suffering, extend mercy to those in need, and work for justice so all may have access to God’s table of abundance.

“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end.” Therein lies my hope and my calling beyond the election.

Who Will Care for the Orphans?

In 1995, my wife Linda and I spent two weeks traveling Zimbabwe with leaders of The United Methodist Church. We were there to support and learn from the people and to witness the marvelous work being done by the church in providing education, healthcare, and other forms of aid among the people of beautiful country.

The most memorable and haunting experience was a visit at an orphanage at Old Mutare Mission, located within view of African University. There we listened to the dedicated staff who care for children orphaned by the HIV/Aids epidemic. The children surrounded us with smiles and longing looks in their bright eyes. As we were leaving, kids clung to our legs as though grasping for love and hope.

Though the children have long forgotten the two strangers from the U.S., I have not forgotten them. Their images continue to prod and inspire me to respond to the plight of the estimated 150 million orphans around the world. They are, after all, at the center of God’s presence and mission.

At the heart of our faith is this declaration: God “defends the orphans, widows, and sojourners (immigrants),” and we meet God “in the least of these.” To know and serve this God is to be in solidarity with the most vulnerable among us; and no one is more vulnerable than the orphans. The orphans, therefore, are far more than objects of mission; they are means of divine presence and transformation.

My friend, Wayne Lavender, knows the plight of orphans and he knows the God who defends them. Furthermore, he knows the difference relationships with “the least of these” can make in the lives of individuals, congregations, and communities. As a trained theologian, pastor, political scientist, and peace activist, Dr. Lavender founded Foundation for Orphans (F4O) as a means of connecting individuals and congregations in the U.S. with the orphans in Africa, currently in Mozambique. You can learn more about F4O at their website https://f4o.org/.

I serve on the Board of Directors of F4O and support the efforts to provide love and hope for as many children as possible. Recently, I contribute financially because I believe in its mission, ministry, integrity and transparency. I know my recent gift will be used to help construct a new home for 48 orphaned children in Lichinga, Mozambique.

This Saturday, October 10 (10.10.2020), World Orphan Day, the Foundation 4 Orphans -F4O.org will be holding its first CyberThon, an online fundraiser. I will be one of the keynote speakers, appearing from 7:05 – 7:15 PM. You can watch my interview on the Foundation 4 Orphans – F4O.org FaceBook live during that time (more info here), or on their YouTube F4O Cyberthon channel (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCH_2WHOr_yqJFPBll39XhkA)

I hope you will join with me in prayer for the success of this fundraiser, and possibly by your gifts (https://f4o.org/give-2/). Working together, we can provide love and hope to these children and thereby change the world, one life at a time.

Prayer of Blessing for Beginning of School Year

My granddaughter, Emily Nash, began her teaching career this week. She has been working hard all summer to prepare her classroom and curriculum. I wrote this prayer as a blessing for her; but I have edited it here to include all teachers, students, and staff as they face a particularly challenging and uncertain year.

colorful prayer hands



Blessed are You, God of love, truth, goodness, and beauty. As our teachers prepare for a year of teaching, bless them, their classrooms, and all the kids who will soon gather.

You have already blessed our teachers with gifts and training. Now bless them with

  • Enthusiasm for the tasks ahead
  • Patience amid resistance
  • Gentleness amid conflict
  • Empathy for the troubled
  • Steadfastness when discouraged
  • Perseverance amid failure and mistakes
  • And joy when progress is evident

Bless the classrooms with beauty that

  • Sparks imagination
  • Enhances learning
  • Invites inquiry
  • Stimulates questions
  • Fosters belonging
  • Facilitates cooperation
  • Feels like home.

Bless the students with

  • Eagerness to learn and grow
  • Trust in their inherent worth and dignity
  • Willingness to learn from mistakes
  • Confidence in their ability and potential
  • Openness to guidance and correction
  • A sense of belonging in a community of learning.

Bless the administrators and staff with

  • Respect for one another
  • Love and compassion for ALL students
  • Mutual accountability for nurturing a learning community
  • Enduring commitment to excellence in education and formation.

Bless and fill each school with Love, Truth, Goodness, and Beauty so that each may be a beacon of hope for a world of peace, justice, and liberty for ALL people. Amen.

 

 

 

 

Emerging from a Hard Season of Dementia, Pandemic, and Death

Carlen Maddux and I have forged a friendship as the result of our common experiences in caring for our beloved spouses. I am blessed by Carlen’s insights, wisdom, and support. I am honored that he chose to interview me recently and post this article on his website.

http://www.carlenmaddux.com/blog/emerging-from-a-hard-season-of-dementia-pandemic-and-death?fbclid=IwAR1h-XAXHba5a_oDEju5sxPG-oPL7mgsa34sYEUrcsCilZZHIGnY6jGgapI

Uncounted Victims of COVID-19

COVID-19 casualties, counted and uncounted, are mushrooming and getting closer to home!

Our family had a scare last week. Sandra, my daughter, is a social worker in a skilled nursing facility. She was exposed to the virus and developed familiar symptoms. We all anxiously waited three days for the test results. Fortunately, she tested NEGATIVE.

Among the many uncounted casualties are those who live and work in nursing homes like the one where Sandra serves and the one across the street from me.

Sandra eagerly returned to work Monday. She loves her work, her colleagues, the residents and their families.

Lowman across street

I live on the campus of a beautiful continuous care retirement community. Across the street is the nursing facility, where approximately 140 residents are cared for by a dedicated team of caring staff members.

I see family members come to the windows of their loved ones and press their hands against the pane. I watch as staff members arrive for their long shifts and leave exhausted. I hear the sirens of emergency vehicles arriving and realize someone is in crisis.

But this is only a microcosm of the realities in the approximately 15,000 nursing homes in the United States where  1.4 million people are cared for by approximately 1,663,000 employees.

Only a small percentage of the residents in nursing homes have the COVID-19 virus. However, many residents are showing increasing signs of depression and failure to thrive as the result of isolation from loved ones.

Family members are growing increasingly stressed and frustrated by the imposed guidelines and policies.

I wonder if the confusion and agitation of those with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia is intensifying.

Family members of those nearing death plead to be permitted to keep vigil beside the bed of their spouse and/or parent. Thousands are dying with only the staff present to comfort them. I can only imagine the added pain of family members as they now grieve without having had the opportunity to hold their loved one’s hand and whisper “I love you” as a final goodbye.

The medical staff, social workers, and administrators are caught between regulatory guidelines and policies and the relational needs of residents and families. They are taking on added responsibilities way outside their job descriptions: administrators substituting as beauticians and CNAs; social workers becoming conflict mediators and surrogate family members; chaplains sweeping floors and delivering meals; housekeepers assisting with bathing and feeding.

I would like to help. My ability to respond is limited. After all, I’m in the vulnerable age group myself. But I’ve decided that I can do something:

  • I can wear my mask and observe the CDC guidelines so that I don’t add to the workload of healthcare workers, or spread the disease to others.
  • I can pray each day for the staff and residents and the family members, and I now consider each siren a call to prayer.
  • I can walk past the windows with my dog, Millie, and wave at the persons inside.
  • I can speak and write words of appreciation to the staff and not complain if I am inconvenienced by their preoccupation with their added workload.
  • I can communicate with legislators for more attention and resources for the frail elderly, including nursing homes.
  • I can call and/or write to family members I know who are caring for frail persons.
  • I can plant and cultivate flowers in my own lawn that are visible to the residents and staff, providing some glimmer of beauty.
  • I can make an added contribution to agencies that advocate and serve the frail elderly.
  • I can work for systemic changes in attitudes toward and treatment of the elderly, especially the most frail.

And, we all can “love our neighbor as ourselves,” including our neighbors who live and work in nursing homes and their families. They, too, are victims of COVID-19.

 

 

 

 

 

I Take Bible Too Seriously to Take It Literally

The only book we had in my childhood home was the Bible! Though my mother had only a sixth grade education, she read the Bible daily until her death at age 96.

In our home, the Bible was more than a book. It was a revered icon, a visible repository of God’s revelation. We learned its stories, memorized verses and entire chapters. It was the source of our ethical compass.

The church of my childhood proudly described itself as “fundamentalist.” The King James Bible reigned supreme as “God’s Word,” as though dictated by God rather than being published in 1611 under the direction of Anglican King James I.

One of my most dramatic and memorable childhood experiences was seeing a copy of the newly Revised Standard Version of the New Testament burned during worship. The preacher declared that “Communists and atheists” translators had “tampered with the Word of God.”

He proceeded to set the pages on fire so that this “corrupt” version of the Bible would burn, just as its translators would “burn in hell.”

The preacher’s point was clear: We must take this book seriously; tampering with it has drastic consequences!

His point is correct! The Bible is to be taken seriously. Failure to do so has far-reaching consequences.

The problem is this: “Seriously” to the preacher meant “literally.” He failed to realize that literalism can be a way of avoiding taking the Bible seriously, and the results can be devastating.

Literalism tends to rob the Bible of its depth, beauty, mystery, and imagination.   Taking it literally means you don’t have to probe its meaning because the meaning is self-evident (” the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it” or “it means exactly what it says”).

Literalism can be an avoidance mechanism against the deeper meaning. Focusing on the details of whether a great fish really swallowed Jonah distracts from the harder truth of the story: God loves our enemies as much as God loves us!

Or, reading the first two chapters of Genesis as factual accounts of how creation came into existence enables us to avoid the question why and our role as participants in the ongoing nurturing of the earth.

In reality, we are all selective literalists. A participant in a Bible study challenged my assertion that one can believe in Genesis and in evolution.  He argued, “The Bible clearly says that God created the world in six days. Evolution contradicts the Bible and I believe the Bible. The Bible means exactly what it says!”

A few weeks later, we had moved to a discussion of the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’s admonition to “love your enemies,” “turn the other cheek,” and “go the second mile.” I asked, “What are the implications of these passages for our criminal justice system and the use of the death penalty.”

The man who had previously insisted on a “literal” interpretation of Genesis 1 responded: “Well, it can’t be taken literally or we would have to be pacifists.”  He obviously was being selective in his literalism.

Some passages should be taken literally: The Great Commandment, love your enemies, the Beatitudes and Sermon on the Mount, 1 Corinthians 13 to name a few. But even these have to be interpreted, amplified, explained.

Taking the Bible seriously requires that we interpret each part by the meaning of the whole. That is, every passage has to be viewed in terms of its relationship to the overall theme of the Bible–God’s mighty acts of salvation of human hearts, communities, and the entire cosmos.

Ripping verses from the Bible and using them as “proof texts” is tantamount to a surgeon removing an organ without knowing the organ’s relationship to the whole body. We would charge such a reckless surgeon with malpractice.

I firmly believe in the authority of Scripture! Its authority, however, does not reside in its verbal inerrancy.

Here is my understanding of the Bible’s authority: Its authentic witness to the Word-Made-Flesh and its power through the Holy Spirit in community to transform human hearts, relationships, communities, and the entire creation into the likeness of Jesus the eternal Christ.

Being transformed by the Bible requires more than superficial reading, like reading a fortune cookie or daily horoscope. It requires delving deeply into the context, language, nuance, ambiguity, contradictions, and mystery beyond the literal words.

Taking the Bible seriously involves the insights of the community, including the scholars who have devoted their lives to understanding the Scriptures.

Serious reading of Scripture requires putting ourselves in the stories and being changed by the message. Scripture interprets us as surely as we interpret Scripture. Only those willing to be transformed by the Holy Spirit speaking through Scripture take the Bible seriously.

So, the final test of how seriously we take the Bible is the character formed in us. Is the Bible —

  • shaping us into the likeness of Jesus Christ, who is the true Word of God?
  • expanding our capacity to love, including those deemed the “other” or “enemy”?
  • deepening our commitment to and practice of compassion and justice?
  • empowering us to participate fully in God’s present and coming reign in Jesus Christ?
  • increasing our faith, hope, and courage to live God’s vision of a healed, just, and reconciled creation?

If the answer is “no,” we aren’t taking the Bible seriously, even if we literally “believe every word it says.”

A Surprising Word of Grace

I entered Linda’s room shortly after she had been bathed. She was wide awake! When our eyes met, a faint smile appeared. I leaned over and kissed her on the forehead. I remarked as I combed her hair, “You look pretty in that pink gown!”

Then, I spoke the words I say several times every day: “I love you!” Seldom does she respond, or seem to know what I’m saying, or even who I am. But not this time!

She looked intently into my eyes. A broad smile appeared. Then she clearly spoke these simple, surprising words: “You’re wonderful!”

Such poignant moments of connection are inexplicable and rare for someone in the advanced stage of dementia.

The question often haunts me: Does she know that she is loved, that I  love her? So seldom does my presence make an observable difference.

Feelings of powerlessness in the face of her restlessness and agitation are the norm. Sadness and grief are always lurk in the shadows.

But unexpectedly, inexplicably comes a moment of connection, an assurance that love endures, that persistent expressions of devotion matter.

I don’t know what neuroscientists would call it. I call it GRACE!

Knowing She’s Loved Is More Important Than Her Knowing My Name

Linda awoke from her night’s sleep with me standing over her, gently stroking her hair. She gazed at me with a confused look and asked, “Who are you?”

Being forgotten is a painfully common experience of those whose spouse or parent has dementia.

It hurts to never hear your name called by one with whom your life has been lovingly intertwined for decades.

“I’m Kenneth, your husband,” I responded as I leaned over to kiss Linda on the forehead. “I love you!”

Suddenly, the confused look gave way to a twinkle in the eyes and a gleeful smile. There was a recognition deeper and far more important than my name.  It was the recognition, “I am loved!”

I often hear family members, pastors, and friends say they don’t visit those with dementia because “they don’t know me any longer.” Increased isolation results and persons with dementia get cut off from the very thing they most need–the assurance of love.

Whether Linda knows and speaks my name is far less important to me than she know that she is loved.

In her fleeting smile and momentary sparkle in the eyes, I knew that I, too, am loved. And, we both are enfolded in a Love that transcends words or the sound of our names.Clasping hands 2